Philippines — When a forest fire broke out in the mountains of Aguilar town in Pangasinan province during Holy Week, all that town fire chief Arturo Orduña could do was to watch it from the lowlands and get ready, in case it spreads down to residential areas at the foot of the mountains.
During a forest fire at the Caraballo mountains in Natividad town on Black Saturday, local fire chief Randy Fabros can only bring the towns lone fire truck to the Sky Plaza, a park on top of a hill, and prevented the parks buildings and other structures from being burned.
Forest fires had been almost a yearly occurrence in the last six years in the mountainous areas of Pangasinan and each incident had exposed the helplessness of the Bureau of Fire Protection to contain these.
This situation surfaced on Monday during a provincial board inquiry on the recent forest fires in Pangasinan.
During Holy Week, at least 300 hectares of forest near the mountain village of Mapita in Aguilar burned for three days, said Councilor Rosendo Fernandez.
We want to respond but we cant do anything because [the area] is too high. We just wait for the fire to [reach the lower parts of the mountains] and if our firetruck can go there, we go there, said Orduña during the hearing. We are totally helpless, he added.
Records of the provincial environment and natural resources office (Penro) showed that seven forest fires this year had burned about 207.95 hectares of forest in the towns of Bugallon, Natividad and San Quintin.
The recent fire in Aguilar had yet to be included in the report.
Leduina Co, Penro chief, said from 2009 until this month, 53 incidents of forest fires were recorded, destroying 2,821.35 ha of forest worth P23.23 million.
The province has 134,418 ha of forest land in 22 of its 48 towns and cities. Co said the province has a remaining 15-percent forest cover.
Senior Insp. Ariel Caballero, Natividad police chief, said they have yet to determine how the fire that razed part of the Caraballo mountains in his town started. But he said it started from a grassy compound in Barangay (village) Batchelor East. We still do not know if it was intentional or accidental, Caballero said.
Orduña said the fire in the Aguilar mountains was intentional because, he said, it had been the practice of kaingero (slash and burn farmers) to burn the old patches of grass to allow regrowth.
Only, they were not able to control it because they had no firebreaks that would stop the fire from spreading, said Orduña.
Aside from inadequate firefighting equipment and access to areas where fires are raging, the local environment office also lacked personnel to supervise the provinces forest.
Co said her office has only 17 forest rangers, each covering 4,000 to 6,500 ha. Her agency, she said, had very low budget allotment for forest protection.
Board Member Mojamito Libunao said the problem on forest fires was beyond the Penros and local officials capability to address.
He said all people and agencies concerned should hold a summit and find out what they could do together to minimize forest fires.
Co appealed to the provincial board to enact an ordinance that would give stiffer penalties to those caught burning the provinces forests.
We also appeal to you to help us have more forest rangers, she said.